A version of this story appeared in the March 18 edition of CNN’s Royal News, a weekly dispatch bringing you the inside track on Britain’s royal family. Sign up here.
If you can’t answer the question in this week’s headline straight away, it probably says more about her than you.
She’s done so much over such a long period of time, it can be hard to quantify and there simply is no one else comparable.
Queen Margrethe of Denmark is also long-serving and widely admired by her subjects but Elizabeth’s reign has been longer and she has significantly more subjects.
Perhaps we should first ask what the primary role of a monarch is?
It isn’t to serve for as long as possible; it’s to serve well and leave the throne in a stronger position than when you inherited it. In that regard, Elizabeth has outperformed against all odds.
She has reigned during a period of change that threatened the monarchy on many fronts. The media revolution put a largely unaccountable institution under unprecedented scrutiny and took away some of the mystique that made it so intriguing. That came with a loss of deference in wider society, which made the monarchy appear even more aloof and unrelatable.
But the Queen has a unique ability to turn threats into opportunities and she embraced the media and used it to connect with her subjects, most famously by inviting cameras to film her on walkabouts and among the people. She televised the Christmas message and in doing so inserted herself into the most intimate family moment of the British year. She had an official social media account before any of her grandchildren.
But Elizabeth’s greatest counterstrike has to be the Commonwealth. When she acceded to the throne, her empire – once the largest on Earth – was collapsing. Country after country voted for independence and many saw it as the beginning of the end of the entire institution of monarchy.
Elizabeth, then still in her 20s, stopped the rot by throwing herself behind a fledgling group her father had overseen for post-colonial nations. The Queen made the Commonwealth a priority and, under her stewardship, it has grown from eight members to 54 today.
Why does that matter? Because it changed the narrative. As quickly as she was losing authority with a collapsing power base, she was regaining it as the figurehead of an association of independent states. She kept her international footprint and modernized at the same time.
When she passes the crown to Charles, it will be less vulnerable than it was when she received it and that has to be her greatest achievement.
The Queen’s long-held wish to ensure the Commonwealth goes from strength to strength with Charles at its helm was granted in 2018, when the body named him as its next head. His ascension into the role was not guaranteed, as the British King or Queen is not automatically Head of the Commonwealth – member countries choose who takes on the position.
Since then, Charles has increasingly placed the modern Commonwealth at the forefront of his work as he prepares for his own reign.
He is progressively taking on more Commonwealth responsibilities on his mother’s behalf, like when he led the family on Monday at this week’s Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey. To coincide with the day, he also launched climate action scholarships for students from small island nations, many of which are part of the Commonwealth.
Charles is also set to represent the Queen at a rescheduled meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kigali, Rwanda in late June. It was supposed to have been held in June 2020 and was postponed twice amid coronavirus.
In a statement Monday, Charles said it was “more important than ever” for members to come together as the world continues to recover from the pandemic. “As a family of some 2.6 billion people from fifty-four nations across six continents, the Commonwealth represents a rich diversity of traditions, experience and talents which can help to build a more equal, sustainable and prosperous future,” he added.
But don’t expect any sort of handover soon. The Queen may not have been well enough to attend this week’s event, but in a message from Windsor she dispelled any suggestion that she might step down: “In this year of my Platinum Jubilee, it has given me pleasure to renew the promise I made in 1947, that my life will always be devoted in service.”
WHAT YOU SAID
Thank you to those who sent in your thoughts on the future of Buckingham Palace. Many of the responses suggested the royals should lean in more on the tourism option, with a couple of folks even suggesting a hotel or bed and breakfast. Now, that would be an experience!
Here are a few other answers:
Michelle suggested transforming it fully into a “museum displaying the history of England and the monarchy.”
Mary Beth recalled visiting the palace during the very first year it opened to the public. She suggested opening some of the areas that the Queen has used privately in recent decades, like various state rooms, ballrooms and perhaps her bedroom? “Let ‘common people’ feel as if we had been let into the lives of the royals, especially the royal who has reigned the longest of any of them,” she explained.
Meanwhile, Carmine suggested a completely different approach – turn it into affordable housing. “It’s had its day and is time to use it for something functional for the populace,” Carmine said.
(Editor’s note: Submissions have been edited for brevity.)
IN THE ROYAL DIARY
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be making final preparations to depart on their first official joint overseas trip since the start of the pandemic. Their royal tour of the Caribbean to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year will start in Belize on Saturday before continuing to Jamaica and the Bahamas over the course of the week.
It may be a tricky tour for the couple, who are visiting the region amid growing republican debate over the royal family’s relevance in several countries.
Kensington Palace said William and Kate “are keen to understand more about the impact that the pandemic has had across the Caribbean, and how communities have pulled together to respond.” The visit will also celebrate the Queen’s legacy in the countries, while touching on themes close to their hearts, including the environment, mental health and early childhood.
WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING?
Queen joins cultural boycott of Russia.
The Royal Collection is reportedly withholding three swords bound for display in Moscow. The Queen’s art collection had agreed to lend the 17th-century weapons to Moscow Kremlin Museums for an exhibition focused on dueling. However, permission was withdrawn in mid-February as Russia’s troops gathered on Ukraine’s borders prior to its unprovoked invasion of the country. “A decision to postpone a loan of three swords from the Royal Collection to the Kremlin Museums in Moscow was made in mid-February,” a Royal Collection Trust spokesperson told the Guardian. The museum announced the exhibition, which was due to open on March 4, had been postponed indefinitely. “The core of the project consists of exhibits from European museums, which were forced to withdraw them before the time due to the geopolitical situation,” it said in a statement on its website.
BBC settles with Diana’s former aide.
The British Broadcasting Corporation has apologized “unreservedly” to Patrick Jephson, private secretary to the late Princess of Wales, over the methods journalist Martin Bashir used to secure his explosive Panorama interview more than 26 years ago. In the 1995 world exclusive, Diana confirmed Prince Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles and described how she believed royal life had made her bulimic. Retired judge John Dyson found Bashir forged documents falsely suggesting palace staff were being paid to spy on the princess in order to get Diana to speak to him, according to an independent investigation published last year. In a statement, the BBC said it “accepts and acknowledges that serious harm was caused to Commander Jephson as a result of the circumstances in which the 1995 interview with Diana, Princess of Wales was obtained, which have become apparent as a result of the Dyson Report. The BBC apologises unreservedly to Commander Jephson for the harm caused to him and has paid his legal costs.” The statement added that the corporation had paid “a substantial sum in damages, which he intends to donate in full to British charities nominated by him.” Jephson described the settlement as a “relief” and expressed his gratitude to Dyson and journalists for bringing “the truth to light,” according to Britain’s PA Media news agency.
Sussexes continue their support of Ukraine.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have made several donations to on-the-ground organizations to support the people of Ukraine, according to a statement on their non-profit Archewell Foundation website on Friday. Aid from the couple has gone to refugee agency HIAS, mine clearance organization the HALO Trust and a coalition of Ukrainian media supported by the Are We Europe organization. “All of us at Archewell have been inspired by the work these organizations have taken on – and also by the stories from those on the frontlines,” the statement read. Separately, the HALO Trust revealed Prince Harry recently spoke to two staffers, Olesia and Maryna, based in Ukraine. During the call, Harry praised their work, saying they are “saving lives every single day.” He added: “I know that you’re going to continue doing the work that is so desperately needed for HALO, for your families and your country.” Watch some of their conversation below:
Kate’s portraits are also going on tour.
Remember those ethereal official portraits released in honor of the Duchess of Cambridge’s 40th birthday? Well, the shots taken by fashion photographer Paolo Roversi back in November are heading on a little tour of Great Britain.
They are now part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, of which Kate is patron. But with the institution closed for redevelopment until next year, the portraits are being sent for display at venues close to Kate’s heart. The tour is part of the gallery’s “Coming Home” project, which sees pieces “travel to towns and cities across the UK, providing communities with the opportunity to see iconic works locally,” it said in a statement.
Kate helped select the venues for her portrait tour, the gallery said. The black-and-white shot of the duchess looking to the left is to be displayed at St. James the Less Church in the village of Pangbourne, southeast England, from March 22 to April 5. It will then be shown at the nearby Reading Museum from April 7 to June 4. The church, the statement said, “has welcomed the Middleton family as parishioners over several generations and the Reading Museum was chosen due to its proximity to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, where The Duchess was born.”
The portrait of the duchess in a striking red gown is set for the Wardlaw Museum at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, where the duchess famously met her future husband while they were studying.
Meanwhile, the other black-and-white portrait of Kate smiling broadly at the camera is headed to Oriel Môn in Anglesey, Wales, where the Cambridges lived in the first years of their marriage, for display between July 16 and October 22.
Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said the institution was “delighted” to be sending the portraits to locations of significance to the duchess. He described her as “a very committed” patron who has a “great interest in photography and portraiture.”
Prince Harry to miss grandfather’s service.
The Duke of Sussex will not return to the UK at the end of this month. A spokesperson for Prince Harry confirmed the royal will miss the thanksgiving service for his late grandfather, Prince Philip, which is due to be held at Westminster Abbey on March 29. However, the duke hopes to visit his grandmother as soon as possible, the spokesperson added.
Despite his absence, Harry will be crossing the Atlantic soon enough. The duke has been brushing up his Dutch skills, according to a tongue-in-cheek promo for his upcoming Invictus Games in The Hague from April 19. In the clip, Harry impresses the local team with his Dutch pronunciation before he shows off his excitement about the event for sick and injured service personnel by changing into a bright orange ensemble. “Let’s go!” he gleefully announces, pointing to the camera. Check it out below:
PHOTOS OF THE WEEK
The Cambridges laugh as Lieutenant Colonel Rob Money puts a bearskin hat on his 20-month-old daughter Gaia’s head as they attend the 1st Battalion Irish Guards’ St. Patrick’s Day Parade at Mons Barracks in Aldershot, England on Thursday.
Prince Charles appears to be having a whale of a time on a bodhrán drum during a visit to the Irish Cultural Centre in London in the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day.
The head of the Commonwealth once more emphasized her life-long duties and reflected on the growth of the organization to 54 nations over the course of her seven decades on the throne. Read her full message here.